Wade through the river of grass into the shadows of a ‘gator hole’ or a cypress dome. Wear lace-up shoes, socks and long pants that can get wet or muddy.
The museum at the Visitor Center has an exhibit called “Making a Hole a Home” which describes gator holes and slogging as follows:
Cold-blooded creatures, alligators require water year-round to regulate their body temperature. They stay submerged on cold days to stay warm, and on warm days to stay cool. Their dependence on water drives them to dig their own pools, assuring themselves a place to plunge for protection from the heat of the searing sun. A gator excavates its hole by thrashing its tail, digging with hind legs, pushing with its snout, and otherwise moving soft peat and vegetation out of pockets in the limestone bedrock. This active clearing creates a small oasis that attracts some of the gator’s favorite prey – a self-catered feast of fish, turtles, and an occasional bird.
Slogging is off-trail hiking that brings you into closer contact with the park’s more elusive species. Some of the most beautiful settings, such as the interior of a cypress dome, can only be seen in this way. Watch your footing – mucky soil, sharp rocks, and sink holes make walking tricky. Though gators and snakes tend to avoid humans, if you’re timid about forging your own path, look into a ranger-led slog.
The person leading the slog was one of the park’s volunteers, Kathy. She handed each of us a walking stick that we were to use to locate branches, roots and holes directly in front of us.
Kathy explained that the cypress dome that she’d just visited was kind of dry, and she’d decided to take our group to a different area. There were two Cypress Domes we could hike to in this area and Kathy mentioned that the one further out was the more beautiful of the two, she called it a “cathedral”. She asked if we were all willing to walk a little further to this second cypress dome, and we were.
Once we began our hike, I figured out why this outing is rated “strenuous”, even though it’s really not that long. Walking in the muck is really tough. Kathy was very thoughtful and stopped for several breaks along the way to point out some of the smaller, less noticeable plants and animals along the way; a green frog, lichen, Cypress knees and periphyton, algae that are the primary producers in the Everglades food web and produce food and oxygen for small aquatic organisms.
We arrived at the Cypress Dome and all agreed with Kathy that this was a magical place and well worth the longer walk. Once inside the dome, walking was actually easier because the ground there (under the water) was peat and not as mucky as that outside the dome, but there were lot of roots, branches and holes. We spent a good amount of time exploring the dome and spotted spiders, orchids, more lichen, bromeliads and a hawk in its nest. The water in the dome was a strangely beautiful clear color with interesting plants.
Kathy then located the gator hole in the middle of the Cypress Dome. The gator hole was vacant, which gave me some pause as I stood in knee deep water. But it was such a lovely place that I quickly forgot to worry.